US Embassy Community Liaison Officer Helen Wilmot: Bulgaria Is Easy Country to Live In
Exclusive interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with Community Liaison Officer with the US Embassy, Helen Wilmot.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, you diplomatic career.
I am actually a spouse, a family member, my husband is the Defense Attach? of the Embassy, The job I do is staffed by two family members and we have a full-time Bulgarian employee. We are a military family and we have lived around the world, but always on military bases. This is our first time in an embassy. We have been here for fours years
How would you describe briefly the work of the Community Liaison Office (CLO) at the US Embassy in Bulgaria? What approaches do you employ in maintaining the connections between the US expats in Bulgaria?
We have different aspects, but there are two main activities – we take care of new people that are coming in the Embassy; we make sure they know about what is going on in the community and expose them to Bulgaria, to the live, to the people
For those people who are already here, we put on a lot of events take them places, make sure Americans in the community get to know what is going on in the country, meet the people, see the country.
We have a lot to do, there is two of us doing the full position full time; we are in contact with Americans before they come here, usually six months to a year before. When they are here we always ask them what they like to do, what is interesting in the community for them to do; we are even sometimes told we are putting too many emails because we are so enthusiastic.
This job is not a onetime event, it is a process. We want to avoid people coming to the Embassy to work and then just going home; they are in a beautiful contry; we want to expose them to Bulgaria.
Obviously, Bulgaria is rather different than the US – but more specifically – what are the challenges for an American adjusting to life in Bulgaria?
I think the biggest challenge, personally for me, is the driving. Outside the city it is no big deal, but it is a chock for people when they first come; it depends where you have lived before, we lived in Naples, in Italy so to me it was very similar, but in the US there is lots of rules, people follow the rules. The creative driving, and the state of the roads, the holes and the driving on the sidewalks - this is always a challenge for people I think. But it is fun at the same time.
From your observations, what's the culture shock like for Americans relocating to Bulgaria? What are the most striking things?
I don't think there is a culture shock, most of the State Department and the military have language training before they come here, maybe if you are out in the countryside, where people don't speak the language, it could be difficult. Here, we put on a lot of weekend day trips to places to get people out of Sofia so that they can experience Bulgaria. Bulgaria is a pretty easy place to live in. Maybe some small things like the custom of nodding yes or no it could be confusing.
What kinds of activities does the Community Liaison Office in Sofia undertake in order to carry out its mission? Which of the Bulgarian traditions do you employ as activities for the members of the American community?
Our favorite one is for the whole community, for the Embassy, the local staff, everybody in Bulgaria - we put on bazaar twice a year, hold it on the outside parking lot, so it is open for everyone. This is a very nice event with a little bit of American and a little bit of Bulgarian flare. Americans and Bulgarians come; we bring friends from around the country expats so that expats can come and purchase Bulgarian items. At the same time, we put on a huge yard sale; Americans in the community sell their items and the Bulgarians really like. They always say: "We wish we had this in Bulgaria," because they get things cheaply. The marines come and cook American food. A truly nice event for everybody. But we do a lot of events all the time.
We do lot of fundraising; like right now we are working on the food drive for the elderly. Our office is piling with food, mostly from the Americans, but local staff was also very generous, giving us food and money. We will give it to the soup kitchen. The Embassy also helps an orphanage. People love to do that and give something back to the community.
In general, how would you characterize the life of the US expat community in Bulgaria? How does the life of the Embassy employees and their families differ from the life of the other expats?
I think they have a good time. There is something for everybody, for all Americans in this country, for families and singles. The single people in the embassy have a good time; they find plenty to do. Part of our job is to make sure the moral is OK here, so I just last week I spoke with a few of the singles people, asked them if there is anything they want us to do help them. They said "no, we are having a good time, we are fine."
The outdoor life is very good here and very affordable. Lot of Americans come here knowing there is good skiing, hiking. People always talk to us before they come – if this is a good place, if it would fir their family. Probably a year before they come, they known the lifestyle here– it is a very affordable place for Americans, you can eat out, do skiing and activities that you could not do as regularly if you lived in Washington for example, because of the cost.
What would you say to an American getting ready to travel or relocate to Bulgaria – what are the major things they should know/take into account?
We have a standard form that we send out for different things like the school information, all the different schools and daycares; the activities they can do through the Embassy; we send information about how the TVs work, the internet, what kind of a car they should bring, stressing they should think seriously about bringing a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Just everything, so that when they get here they are not saying "I wish somebody told me about this." So when we hear this we update the information, and the next time we make sure we tell people about it. We get them in touch with the schools; give them a list so that they can talk directly to the principal.
We arrange for a social sponsor for everybody, and try to get the local staff involved because it is ok us helping another American, but it is much better if somebody who lives here helps them. We already know what we know for 3 years and then we are gone. We had a few; it has not been too successful, but the ones that come forward, the Americans who had local staff help them, have been very happy
Do you work with American citizens outside the scope of Embassy employees and their families?
We meet them not so much through the CLO because we are here for the American community in the Embassy, but we do work with them a lot, we are members if the International Women's Club and most Americans in the community are also members of the club; we socialize with them; they are always invited to the bazaars and other social events.
The club has a meeting every second Tuesday of the month. One can be a guest for BGN 5 and then decide if they want to join.
They have a huge charity bazaar for Christmas at the International Expo center. This is their really big event; this year it will be on December 5. Every country is represented and they mostly sell food and products from their own country. All the funds go for charity.
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